Rivera, Schwarz lead Gators to postseason

On the team bus ride home from the SEC Tournament on Monday morning, Kevin O’Sullivan stopped to watch his freshmen catchers before getting off the bus.

Lagging behind the rest of the team, the Florida coach saw Mike Rivera and J.J. Schwarz walking and talking together on their way to get something to eat. It didn’t surprise O’Sullivan -- he knew the two were friends before coming to campus, but it made him realize how close the two have become at Florida.

Their relationship didn’t have to be this close. Alternating starts behind the plate, Rivera and Schwarz can cut into each other’s playing time behind the plate. But it hasn’t cut into their friendship.

“They have a great relationship,” O’Sullivan said. “They help each other, they’re supportive of each other, and it’s really neat. It’s really neat to see how it’s grown. I think even before they got here they were good friends.”

That relationship started on the 2013 USA 18-U National Team. Rivera and Schwarz were the two primary catchers, leading the United States team to win the tournament. Rivera had a team-high 11 RBI and batted .364 while Schwarz hit .333 with nine RBI and three doubles.

It also confirmed to both players, who were already committed to Florida, that they could play in college together and make it work. They saw it as a positive. It’s not uncommon for a freshman catcher to wear down in college while playing over 60 games. Alternating starts has allowed both to stay fresh late in the season.

“I think at the beginning of the season it was a little bit tougher because (we) would both catch every game in high school,” Schwarz said. “It’s just different coming out here and not getting in the catching rhythm or the hitting rhythm. But I think (we) have done a nice job adjusting to it, and we always hold each other accountable in the dugout. That helps a lot.”

Between innings, the two freshmen will spend time talking in the dugout. Whoever isn’t catching is closely watching the other freshman behind the plate, picking apart his every move. The duo has spent extended time working with volunteer assistant Lars Davis since they came to campus. Davis, in his first year as volunteer assistant, spent eight years in the minor leagues while splitting time behind Double-A and Triple-A last season. He was also the Big Ten Player of the Year at Illinois in 2007.

Davis decided to retire from playing and join the Florida coaching staff. His influence has helped the young catchers adjust to the college level and know what they’re looking for while critiquing the other catcher.

“We talk about things like ‘Maybe you should stay glove quiet’ or just say you have a bad at-bat, he’ll pick me up or I’ll pick him up and tell him ‘Hey. Just focus on the next inning and play some defense and come back and give yourself another at-bat.’ That’s mostly what we do,” Rivera said.

Before Rivera and Schwarz came to campus in the offseason, the Gators hadn’t put a freshman catcher on the All-SEC team since Mike Stanley did it in 1982. This year, Rivera was on the All-SEC second team after hitting .273 with three home runs and making just one error while Schwarz was selected as the designated hitter on the second team after hitting .307 with a team-high 14 home runs and 60 RBI.

There have been a lot of good catchers since Stanley left, but this freshman duo was the first to make history for Florida in over 30 years.

“JJ and Mikey have really blossomed for us,” Florida first baseman Pete Alonso said. “Both of them have been really clutch behind the dish blocking, receiving, working with the pitchers and also doing a really good job at the plate. Obviously JJ’s having a really good year offensively and Mikey being Mr. Clutch there in the tournament, I think both of them play with a lot of energy. I’m really happy to have both of them with us this year. They’ve done an incredible job.”

Added Florida center fielder Buddy Reed, “They’re two of the hardest workers I think on our team, and it definitely shows in the field and behind the plate. They’re vocal leaders. Obviously, they have to be as catchers because they see everything. So with them behind the plate, I’m really comfortable with how they play and going forward how they’ll be in the future.”

The Florida program is set behind the plate through the 2017 season when the duo will first be draft-eligible. The future is bright with a young team, boasting 23 freshmen and sophomores out of the 33 on the roster, but the production from behind the plate has Florida prepared to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament starting this weekend with Florida A&M at 7 p.m. on Friday.

“I think we have as good a situation behind the plate that we’ve had here and we’ve had some good ones; (Taylor) Gushue the last few years and then (Mike) Zunino and those guys. We’ve been very fortunate to have some good catchers here. The way those guys get along, the way they each other, the way they help each other, they’ve both gotten better. It’s a unique situation, but it’s kind of neat to watch.”

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